Pollution From Koch-Funded Petcoke Piles Not An ‘Emergency,’ Illinois Regulators Rule

A mount of petcoke in Chicago in 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
A mount of petcoke in Chicago in 2013. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST

The large mountains of petroleum coke, or petcoke, that line Chicago’s Calumet River won’t be going anywhere soon, despite residents’ concerns that the piles are blowing toxic dust into the air and negatively affecting their health.

In a 4–0 vote, the Illinois Pollution Control Board ruled on Thursday that there is no imminent threat to public health and safety from petcoke — a byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil that is generally sold overseas — on Chicago’s southeast side, rejecting state Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed emergency rules to control the piles.

“The Board is not convinced an “emergency” exists,” the ruling read. “The Board is convinced that improperly controlled emissions could be a nuisance … However, this record provides evidence petcoke dust poses low risk to human health.”

Many residents disagree, citing dark, smelly clouds containing petcoke dust that have swirled over their heads during storms. Since the piles appeared, community members have complained of respiratory problems.


Chicago’s Department of Public Health has found that the piles have violated dust and debris provisions of municipal environmental ordinances. City officials also claimed the issue was of “special concern,” the ruling said, “because the facilities are located in a densely populated area of the city.”

“Anyone who has seen the dust storm photos or tasted the air next to the piles on the Chicago’s Southeast Side knows that petcoke in our neighborhoods is indeed an emergency,” Josh Mogerman at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, adding the decision represented “a failure to recognize the imminent danger of particulate matter sweeping over Illinois communities.”

Gov. Quinn’s proposed emergency rules would have required immediate measures including road paving, dust suppression systems, containment of stormwater to prevent groundwater pollution, and disposal of petcoke that had been on site for more than one year.

Though residents exposed to pollution from petcoke piles across the country have complained of health problems, the industry that produces it has worked hard to debunk the claims. Type “petcoke” into Google, and the first result that comes up is sponsored site called, headlined with the words “Why Petcoke Is Safe” and underscored by the statement that “petcoke is highly stable and not considered hazardous to people.” The site is run by KCBX Terminals Inc., a company owned by the wealthy ultra-conservative Koch Brothers, high-profile funders of climate denial.

Indeed, the Chicago piles of petcoke are part of the business empire of the Koch brothers, earning the nickname “PetKoch.” The Koch Brothers were also responsible for a large black cloud that floated above the Detroit River last summer, which was caught on camera by residents across the border in Windsor.


Though petcoke is not a coal product, the Illinois Pollution Control Board nonetheless took into consideration comments from Arch Coal, Inc., the second largest U.S. coal producer, which has coal mining operations in Illinois. The company told the Board that the emergency rules would “have severe, adverse consequences for our operations in Illinois” by “constraining” operations at shipping terminals.

“While Arch Coal acknowledges that the proposed emergency rulemaking may not apply directly to coal mining operations, it objects to the emergent nature of the rulemaking, arguing that there is no emergency, severe public health emergency, or threat to the public interest,” the board wrote.

The Board also received comments from Kinder Morgan Inc., which owns three bulk coal terminals in Illinois, and ArcelorMittal USA, a supplier and customer of coal and coke and the largest integrated iron and steel company in the world. Both companies argued that the piles did not need more regulation.

“ArcelorMittal objects to the emergency rulemaking on the basis that there is no emergency,” the ruling said.